I hope I'm not a week too late jumping on the bandwagon. I loved the Steelers heading into the season, and
I strongly considered picking the Steelers in week 2 (+6 @ Titans) and last week (-4 @ Bucs), but both times was dissuaded by their crappy QB situation. I also pondered picking against the Ravens both the last two weeks when they failed to cover. Not again. Thus, while I strongly looked at Rams +1 and Miami +1 this week, I love the Steelers. Here's why:
1. The Ravens will struggle mightily to score points.
As loyal readers of this blog know, I am no Joe Flacco fan. As I pointed out here, he struggles to throw the ball vertically (despite great natural arm strength) and holds the ball way too long -- as typified by this horrible sack-fumble. The general public -- and the pundits -- seem to continue to be high on Flacco, despite his pitiful 66.3 QB rating. While it is true that he's coming off a good day, I can't emphasize enough that it was against the Browns, a team that decided it was smart to play Boldin in single coverage with a below-average corner for most of the game. On top of that, Flacco's best throw of the day was on a horribly busted coverage.
He's not going to get those same opportunities this week. In 2 road games this year, Flacco has put up a total of 20 points. And while I admit that one of those games was against the Jets, their defense hasn't been all that great of late. Flacco has not performed well historically against the Steelers; he's 1-4 against them. That one win was last year, in which he did have a decent day on the way to 20 points, but of course the Steelers were missing Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith. Polamalu is, I think, the best defensive player in the NFL; his versatility is the linchpin of Dick LeBeau's defense, and the Steelers are a totally different team without him. In addition, Aaron Smith is a very solid and underrated DE in that 3-4 scheme. Flacco is not going to have the same success this week that he had in that 1 home win last year.
And make no mistake, the Steelers' defense is playing at a dominant level right now. They have beaten three teams who are all 2-1 and who have lost only to the Steelers. They are executing LeBeau's game plan to perfection and generating pressure even when their superb pair of OLBs don't get to the QB. In short, I expect Flacco to have a fairly miserable day. And while Ray Rice has had success in the past against the Steelers, he's banged up, and his success in the past against the Steelers has stemmed from bouncing the ball outside, something significantly complicated by the return of Aaron Smith. While I think he'll give the Steelers' rush defense their stiffest test of late, that defense has been simply suffocating -- a trend I expect to continue.
2. The Steelers will generate plenty of yardage on the ground.
Here's something most people find surprising: the Ravens are yielding a healthy 4.7 yards per rush attempt this year. Peyton Hillis just ran right through them last week. And the Steelers are well-situated to exploit the Ravens' porous rush defense. The Steelers call the most rushes of any team in the league, and Mendenhall looks fantastic thus far. The return of Max Starks, coupled with steady improvement by the rest of the line, has given Mendenhall plenty of holes through which to run. I think the success on the ground enables the Steelers to score enough to win this week.
Of course, the Ravens will likely take their scouts' advice and deploy 8-man fronts to slow down the Pittsburgh ground game. After all, they're starting Charlie Batch! The thing is, Batch was actually decent last week. I especially liked Batch's ability to make adjustments after getting picked off early (by the solid Aqib Talib). No, I don't necessarily expect him to throw for 3 TD's again, since he's not playing the Bucs again. \But I also think prognosticators err when they equate this Ravens' secondary with those of the past. Look at the QB's they've played against: the inconsistent Mark Sanchez on a day when he never even attempted to throw the ball downfield, Carson Palmer -- who is having an abysmal year, and Seneca Wallace. And Wallace played pretty decently against the Ravens' secondary. Don't forget, the Ravens were losing 14-17 in the 4th quarter against a bad Browns team. While Batch is obviously nothing to write home about, I think he could have some success against the Ravens if they load up against the run. At bottom, the Ravens' pass defense was bad heading into the year, and I think the poor quality of QB's they've faced thus far have masked their deficiencies. In other words, it's a perfect time to bet against them.
THE COUNTER-ARGUMENT: STEELERS TAKE IT EASY AS BIG BEN'S RETURN APPROACHES?
I'm a little worried that the Steelers will rest on their laurels now that they've secured a winning sans-Ben record. And the media coverage of Roethlisberger's return is already heating up. But I think that this team has been playing with a chip on its shoulder, and I suspect that continues this week. They seem inspired by Batch, and there's certainly no love lost between these heated AFC North rivals.
I certainly don't anticipate another Steelers' blowout. But this line is so small that it's too hard to pass up. The Steelers have been the best team in the NFL thus far, while the Ravens are overrated. In fact, I think that after the Steelers expose the Ravens this week, there will be plenty of stories about how "the Ravens aren't who we thought they were" or about waiting for Ed Reed to get back. So picking against them now comes at the right time, because they're coming off a win, but one in which they really weren't that impressive. There are enough people out there saying that "a win is a win" that I think this line is kept artificially low. In fact, I employed virtually the same logic last year, successfully picking against the Ravens coming off a unimpressive win over the Browns.
Ultimately, using FO's DVOA metrics -- something I vowed to do more of this year -- the Steelers are ranked 3rd and the Ravens 18th. Plus, the Steelers are at home, a place where they've already knocked off a very good Atlanta team and where Flacco typically struggles. While I wouldn't be at all shocked if this game was decided by a field goal, I think that as long as the line is under 3, I'm taking the Steelers and feeling good about it. Pittsburgh covers.